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Coronavirus: Do I have to go back to work after lockdown?

Robert Plummer - Business reporter, BBC News
A waitress carrying coffee

With pubs, restaurants, hotels and campsites as well as hairdressers and cinemas allowed to reopen from 4 July, the number of people back at work is set to grow.

Many people fear contracting coronavirus once they return to work. So what are your rights?

Should I be returning to work?

Employees who can work from home are advised by the government to continue to do so.

For those who do return, full government guidance on working safely in the newly opened sectors is due to be published. It will include separate advice for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Firms should be ready to "move quickly" if the rules change, says the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

That means employees might have little notice if their company wants them to get back to work.

Can my boss make me work despite coronavirus?

This may now become an issue for workers in places such as bars or restaurants, says employment law expert Simon Rice-Birchall from Eversheds Sutherland.

After all, these are public-facing jobs and potentially carry a higher risk of catching the virus.

Mr Rice-Birchall says that if people do not show up for work when asked, they should not expect to get paid. However, employers should be "extremely careful" about deciding to discipline or sack them.

Under employment law, workers have the right to walk off the job to protect themselves from "serious and imminent" danger, he says.

Firms may think they are enforcing social distancing rules, but "no employer can police a workplace properly", he adds.

Construction workers

Will vulnerable people have to return to work?

There are 2.2 million people in England classified as being at high-risk, including those who have received organ transplants or are on immunosuppression drugs.

Employers must be "especially careful" to protect such people, says Tom Neil, senior adviser at arbitration service Acas.

This may include varying their responsibilities, or keeping them on furlough until it is safer for them to return.

"Particularly strict" social distancing rules should be in place to protect those who do return, says Mr Neil.

From 1 August they will no longer need to shield and may return to work as long as their workplace is Covid-secure.

What if I don't think my workplace is safe?

Employers must follow a strict code of measures, which can include:

  • Observing the 1m rule of social distancing
  • Introducing one-way systems to minimise contact
  • Frequent cleaning of objects and communal areas
  • Storing returned items for 72 hours before returning them to the shop floor
  • Table service only in indoor pubs and restaurants
  • Venues expected to collect contact details of customers for the NHS Test and Trace system

If employees are unhappy and their employer has not addressed their concerns, they should contact their local authority or the Health and Safety Executive, who can force firms to take action.

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) says companies should publish risk assessments, so employees know what safety measures are being taken. However, it says that not all firms have done so.

"Employers who fail to keep their workers safe must be fined - and if necessary, shut down, " says TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady.

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How do I get to work safely?

Many people are afraid that using public transport will expose them to the risk of being infected by coronavirus.

Employers are being encouraged to stagger working times, so workers can avoid rush hour.

They are being asked to consider parking and bike storage for people who want to drive or cycle.

Acas says employers should discuss with returning staff how they will travel to and from work and offer help.

How will people on furlough be affected?

At least seven out of 10 UK firms have reported furloughing workers.

From July, businesses will be able to bring furloughed employees back part-time.

But when the scheme finishes at the end of October, companies may not be able to pay all their workers and could cut jobs.

Companies don't have to keep on employees when furlough ends and cannot use these payments to subsidise redundancy packages.

Man with head in hands in front of a laptop as toddler cries

But employers could face allegations of discrimination if they only keep on staff who worked through the crisis, says Acas.

People with underlying health conditions might be more likely to go on furlough, while the woman in a household is more likely to be the one that stays at home with the children.

If my children are at home, can I be forced to go to work?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that if schools are not open and workers cannot get childcare, employers should not expect staff to return.

While it is not necessarily legal protection if you refuse to go to work, Mr Johnson said parents and guardians who are unable to return "must be defended and protected on that basis".